Before Arizona, there was Prince William County, Virginia.
Three years ago, PWC Chairman Corey Stewart was the Jan Brewer of his time. There was an immigration battle ripping his community apart, and Stewart was firmly on the side of those who wanted the immigrants to leave.
But there was one big difference: There was no Sheriff Joe Arpaio eager to enforce a law that was unanimously approved by the county’s eight district supervisors–led by Stewart–requiring local police to check the status of anyone they suspected of being undocumented. Long-time PWC chief of police Col. Charlie Deane balked at Stewart’s resolution. He said he would enforce it only if the county provided training for his officers as well as funding. The county didn’t have the money to do either.
Deane’s open resistance proved pivotal to the fate of the law. After being branded a “traitor” by the measure’s proponents, others in the community galvanized their support for Deane and rallied against the resolution.
This searing account of a community that suffered the consequences of an acrimonious immigration debate is told in 9500 Liberty. a documentary created by filmmakers Annabel Park and Eric Byler. A discussion of the film, following a screening at The New York Times building on September 7, offered an opportunity to hear two sharply contrasting views on laws targeting undocumented immigrant workers.
The filmmakers positioned themselves in the city of Manassas — a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C. — that was bubbling with racial tension over the proposed resolution. One of its provisions was that officers could stop and check the status of immigrants on “probable cause.”
“It was beginning to look like a civil war,” said Park. Byler and Park couldn’t understand how so much hate and anger was turning a quiet, upscale community like Prince William County upside down. So the pair started filming to have “a third eye” to chronicle events and encourage the residents to speak their minds.
In one scene, Greg Leteicq, a right-wing blogger, is shown watching immigrants protest near his office. The camera shows him with arms folded and in a slightly mocking tone saying to himself, “Si se puede” and “lucha, lucha” while laughing.
Letiecq and the Help Save Manassas movement led one side of the debate in PWC, arguing that undocumented immigrants brought economic hardship and lawlessness. PWC chairman Stewart was their point-man in the hallways of county government.
On the other side were immigrant families, mostly Latinos, who rejected the hateful accusations. They erected a freedom wall on a piece of property on 9500 Liberty Street – owned by a Latino entrepreneur — where they scrawled their anger and their pain.
County residents were divided.
9500 Liberty tells the story of how the immigrant community formed a resistance and ultimately won the battle against Stewart’s harsh law. When Deane was called a “traitor” by Letiecq’s army of bloggers for refusing to enforce the resolution, many residents rose to Deane’s defense. They rallied, created a rival blog and spoke openly against Stewart and the right-wing bloggers. In the end, the county voted 5-3 against the resolution’s “probable cause” mandate, with Stewart providing the crucial vote.
PWC still has tough immigration laws–police officers can check the status of anyone they legally detain. But that’s different than arresting someone soley on the grounds (i.e. recipe for racial profiling) of “probable cause” that he or she is undocumented. Deane told NPR that “we want people who are living in this community to trust the police and feel that they are being treated fairly.”
When it comes to sensitive political issues, police officers are often torn between being loyal to their leaders and being able to represent people in the community. “Charlie Deane found himself in this difficult position,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank composed mostly of police chiefs. He spoke at the forum that followed the screening.
Wexler was part of a group of law enforcement officials that met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to warn the government that Arizona’s SB 1070 could potentially make crime-solving more difficult. They said the law would deter fearful immigrants from coming forward both “as witnesses and as victims.”
The film did a “good job” in presenting Deane’s dilemma, Wexler said.
Corey Stewart disagreed. He said the film failed in presenting what he called the real issue: that PWC residents were not against immigrants, but were against the crimes committed by illegal immigrants.
“The movie did a disservice,” he said. “Prince William County is not racist.”
Stewart maintained that like most Americans who abide by a “strong sense of fairness,” he just wanted people to follow the rules.
“I believe in high walls and a very wide gate.” What that means, he said, is that he is in favor of a bigger legal immigration system that would bring in the scientists, the doctors, and those with technical skills.
ABC News anchor John Quinones said immigrants have been blamed for a lot of things – crimes, diseases, overcrowding, joblessness in a slow economy, etc. – “we have turned them into a bogeyman.”
He said if Americans don’t like the Latinos and the culture they bring with them, then they should not hire them to work their farms and take care of their gardens. But Quinones noted that Americans do not generally take on menial jobs. Stewart countered by saying that Americans are not averse to menial jobs. “They just demand that they be paid properly,” he said.
New York Times reporter Fernanda Santos, who moderated the forum, said immigrants have always suffered great prejudice in the U.S., but the recent visceral reaction to undocumented immigrants conveys the message that immigrants are no longer welcome in the United States.
“What led us to this point?” she asked.
9500 Liberty has won three film awards, including the Breakthrough Filmmakers Awards at the Phoenix Film Festival.